THE BLOG

Fashion Victims: The Rana Plaza Disaster, One Year On

24/04/2014 08:40 BST | Updated 23/06/2014 10:59 BST

It's a year since the catastrophic collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh, which housed factories making clothes for the UK's high streets.

This anniversary is important for many reasons.

First and foremost it commemorates a devastating tragedy which left over 1000 people dead and 2,500 injured. It irrevocably changed the lives of the victims' families and left workers who survived facing terrible injuries, physical and emotional trauma and possible destitution.

The disaster also shone a light on the dark reality behind the colour and glamour of the west's fashion industry - clothes which are often made by exhausted, underpaid workers suffering sweatshop conditions.

This was the deadliest factory collapse in modern history, and it came just months after another tragic disaster in Bangladesh, when 112 workers were killed in a fire at Tazreen fashions. It's crucial this time that we learn the lessons of this disaster, and work together globally to stop it ever happening again.

As consumers we all have a role to play in thinking about where our clothes came from, and the real human cost of a cheap t-shirt.

The tragic loss of life shows exactly why trade unions are important to protect the rights of workers. Many lives could have been saved that day if exits had not been locked or blocked - and the workers need to feel empowered to speak up.

It also shows why regulations to protect workers' safety are more than just an irritant passed by paper-pushing bureaucrats in Brussels. Those who would love to see the cutting of so-called 'red tape' should be careful about what they demand - but it's these regulations that protect us from the bad old days when deaths in the workplace were commonplace in the UK too.

Regulations from Europe and elsewhere make sure global corporations act responsibly and value human life. Rather than cutting the standards workers have a right to expect in Europe, we should be making sure our fellow workers in Bangladesh have the same rights that we do.

The garment industry is crucial for Bangladesh, forming 80% of its exports, many of which end up on shelves in Europe. I'd like to see trade deals come with health and safety guarantees, and retailers and fashion brands taking more responsibility for the safety and wellbeing of those workers, mainly women, who make their ware.

In my role as Chair of the European Parliament's Delegation to Bangladesh, I visited Dhaka, where the factory was based, and spoke to many people involved in making change happen on the ground.

I found a mixed picture, but a lot of reasons to be hopeful.

The Bangladeshi government has made some positive changes to employment law, and factory inspectors have been appointed to help ensure working conditions improve.

Over 100 unions have been formed in the country's garment industry, and alliances have been formed by the big brands to work with the labour unions and manufacturers to improve workers' safety.

The Rana Plaza Trust fund was set up so that companies could provide compensation to all who were affected by this appalling tragedy. Some firms have paid up, but many others have yet to put their hands in their pockets. They need to pay their share, and do so fast.

There is a lot more work to be done - not just about compensation levels, but to better co-ordinate the ongoing changes on the ground, and tackle head-on corruption in the industry. There are calls for a dedicated Government Ministry for the garment sector, which employs over four million people in Bangladesh. There also needs to be better clarity about what happens to the workers and their jobs if a factory is found to be unsafe and forced to close.

But the willingness is there from many stakeholders to make progress. And hopefully improvements in the garment sector can be rolled out into other industries.

The victims of this disaster must never be forgotten. We must work to ensure no-one endures such appalling conditions in future, and all workers have the right to make a decent living from their labour.